Most roads take you somewhere. But the Southwest is filled with a lot of roads that lead nowhere in particular. Commentator Scott Thybony has acquired a taste for them and recounts a recent road trip to one of his favorite destinations on the Colorado Plateau…nowhere.
An old pickup rigged for the backroads waited outside a coffeehouse in Flagstaff. It had knobby tires, a gear rack with spare gas cans, and had been left running in case it wouldn’t start again. Layers of red dirt partially covered a bumper sticker reading, “I Won’t Sit Down,” a line from a punk rock song. The other bumper sticker read, “Road to Nowhere,” and likely referred to the Talking Heads song that goes,
We’re on a road to nowhere
Come on inside
Taking that ride to nowhere
We’ll take that ride . . .
Roads to nowhere crisscross the region spreading north from Arizona into Utah. They branch across the landscape in a capillary fashion leading farther, deeper, wilder until simply fading away among the sand drifts and washouts. A road to nowhere isn’t the same as a dead end.
A couple of friends and I decided to explore a blank spot on the map, a region beyond the Little Colorado River I’ve never visited. While these empty places usually have good reasons for not making it onto a map, I’ve acquired a taste for them. I don’t need to end up anywhere in particular to find somewhere I want to be.
We take a highway running east of Flagstaff through a volcanic landscape used as a backdrop for a Hollywood Western in 1940. I want to find where they filmed a scene with covered wagons winding below Merriam Crater. We take a dirt road and try different angles until finding one that lines up. Except for the encroachment of junipers, little has changed over time. Returning to the highway we descend into the desert grasslands of the Navajo country and pull into the Leupp swap meet for a break. A woman is selling traditional herbal remedies she gathers, while others display stacks of used tires and a row of old cowboy boots nicely shined. Nearby, a food vendor sells mutton stew, keeping with tradition, while another offers bowls of spam and green chili, a local specialty. We need to keep moving, so pass up the temptation.
The three of us head down a paved road until it turns to gravel, then cross the river into the Painted Desert. They must have run out of paint by the time they reached this corner of it. Any residual colors have disappeared under the flat light.
Most roads take you past a landscape, reducing it to a view out the window at 60 miles an hour. But this one takes us over every bump and wrinkle of the terrain as we turn onto a deeply rutted track. Pressed under the weight of the sky, a desolate expanse opens before us with no chance of ever making it onto the cover of Arizona Highways. Saltbush dots the salt encrusted mud spreading out on each side, and far away a couple of horses keep to the high ground along the horizon. I continue scanning ahead for a point of interest to justify taking a photo, but nothing turns up.
“It’s pretty grim,” says Tony Williams. And Scott Milzer adds, “This place is uglier than grandpa’s toenail.” It’s bleak, I admit, but it has that fine bleakness often found on a road to nowhere. We turn back toward the distant San Francisco Peaks, back to the somewhere I call home.
Scott Thybony is a Flagstaff-based writer. His Canyon Commentaries are produced by KNAU, Arizona Public Radio.